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Rewind to 2005: The last time the NHL postponed the draft

Sporting News — (Steve Kournianos)

When it comes to work stoppages in professional sports, every sports league in the world bows down and kneels before the altar of the NHL. After never having a single season interrupted in the first 74 years of existence, the world’s premier hockey league shut down four times between 1992 and 2013 because of labor disputes, including the cancellation of the entire 2004-05 season.

Of course, the current suspension of play in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has nothing to do with a breakdown in employer-employee relations. The NHL made the right call in ceasing operations until the time is right. But it once again begs the question for hockey fans, “Why does this always happen to us?”

Whatever decision is made regarding the regular season, the one thing we as fans can count on is the NHL draft, which was slated for the last weekend in June in Montreal but has since been postponed. The league may never resume play, but history tells us it is more than willing to drive on with the draft, even if it means breaking away from tradition and standard operating procedure.

Just like 2005.

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It was during late July of that summer — one that followed the canceled 2004-05 campaign — when owners and the players’ association, led by Bob Goodenow, finally came to an agreement to end the most infamous work stoppage in the history of the sport, with one of the key tasks that required immediate attention being the entry draft. The lockout ended officially on the morning of July 22, and it was only a few hours later when the NHL held an official press conference to outline the way forward for the draft lottery and the draft itself.

Based off of feedback and recommendations from clubs, and per the guidelines outlined in the NHL’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement, the revamped draft lottery was to happen immediately. In fact, both the lottery and league commissioner Gary Bettman’s official announcement took place simultaneously in different areas of the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers. There simply wasn’t a moment to spare.

It was during Bettman’s presser where he outlined the specifics for the draft , which would take place in Ottawa on July 30 but was limited in scope, scale and coverage compared to previous events. The biggest difference, however, was that summer of 2005 was more than just a watershed moment because of the end of the lockout. It also marked the long-awaited chance for NHL clubs to draft Sidney Crosby, who at the time was considered the most coveted draft prospect since Eric Lindros in 1991.

Now that the administrative formalities surrounding the 2005 draft were addressed, the next step was for general managers and their scouts to implement the draft strategies that they had cultivated over the previous 12 months. Unlike other years where only the non-playoff teams had a chance at the first pick, the 2005 draft lottery was designed to give all 30 teams a shot at Crosby, with the greatest odds going to four teams -- the Pittsburgh Penguins, the New York Rangers, the Buffalo Sabres, and the Columbus Blue Jackets. All four in comparison to the rest of the league were considered to have unmatched levels of ineptitude over the three seasons prior. The Penguins owned the league’s worst record in the 2003-04 season.

The Crosby Sweepstakes

There were no illusions as to who was going to be the first overall pick in 2005. Not only did Crosby win the Canadian Hockey League’s Player of the Year Award in each of his two seasons leading up to the draft, but he also outperformed his closest competitors in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League by a massive margin — his 2.71 points-per-game average in 2004-05 was the highest for a 17-year-old prospect since Mario Lemieux in 1982-83.

While every organization, including perennial powerhouses like the Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche, New Jersey Devils, and even the 2004 Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning, would welcome the addition of a generational star like Crosby, several teams in the NHL were in desperate need of a financial boost.

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It was no secret back in the early 2000s that the Penguins were a struggling franchise with an uncertain future long before the cancellation of the 2004-05 season. The team was purchased by Lemieux in 1999 from federal bankruptcy court, but it was a colossal failure on the ice and was already forced to trade expensive stars like Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Kovalev and Ron Francis.

Not only were the Penguins struggling to generate fan interest, but they also were in danger of being relocated. The lease to the Mellon Arena was expiring in 2007 and rumors were circling that the Penguins would eventually be sold and moved elsewhere, with Houston, Portland and Kansas City the leading candidates.

Odds-wise, the Penguins had a 6.25-percent chance at winning the lottery and drafting Crosby, who at nearly 18 was perceived to be not only NHL ready, but also capable of resurrecting the franchise from the bottom of the standings. If the city of Pittsburgh wanted to keep its hockey team, the quickest way to convince investors and season-ticket holders to remain on board was to have a franchise player to not only market, but also help make the city an attraction for prospective free agents.

The even bigger piece was getting a new arena, which would have been next-to-impossible without Crosby’s star power as a selling point.

The Drawing

Much like in today’s NHL, the 2005 lottery drawing was held in a private room with representation from the league and all 30 teams. The setup back then was no different than what we’ve seen in recent years. A bunch of ping-pong balls are drawn from an air-blowing hopper to determine the draft order, with the results delivered via the opening of 30 envelopes, each with a card revealing the team logo. The team card inside the last remaining envelope would be the winner of the first pick.

The biggest difference, however, was the lack of national television coverage in the United States. The lockout and subsequent decrease in interest, along with dwindling ratings during the tail end of the “Dead Puck Era” convinced mega sports provider ESPN to decline a $60-million option that would have seen it air games during the 2005-06 season. As big a name as Crosby was becoming, ESPN had already lost interest in not only the NHL, but the NHL draft as well. Therefore, only a handful of regional U.S. cable networks would be airing the event live.

Nonetheless, when the drawing concluded, it was the Penguins who took home the grand prize.

Within minutes of being awarded the first overall pick, the once downtrodden franchise became a hot item again. Season-ticket subscriptions were renewed and individual game sales more than doubled from the previous season — all before the official selection was made eight days later in Ottawa.

Draft Day '05

The NHL already had arrangements with the Ottawa Senators to host the 2005 draft at what was then known as the Corel Centre on June 25-26,  before the league postponed the event on March 24 of that year . The initial response from the NHL was to conduct the eventual draft via a conference call, but it was later changed to a live event in an Ottawa hotel with full NHL team representation along with 20 of the top prospects according to the final Central Scouting rankings.

The lottery drawing and multiple on-the-record declarations by Penguins’ GM Craig Patrick and Lemieux that they were drafting Crosby may have decreased the level of intrigue that normally surrounds the first pick of most drafts, but that didn’t stop teams from trying to land the phenom the hard way.

To nobody’s surprise, Crosby was the first player off the board, followed by winger Bobby Ryan to the Anaheim Ducks and defenseman Jack Johnson to the Carolina Hurricanes. Other notables from that 2005 class include all-star goalies Carey Price (fifth overall) and Tuukka Rask (21st overall); two-time Stanley Cup winner Anze Kopitar (11th overall), plus center Paul Stastny (44th overall). What is surprising is that the top three defensemen from that draft — Marc-Edouard Vlasic (35th overall), Kris Letang (62nd overall) and Keith Yandle (105th overall) — were chosen outside the first round.

Thanks to a new CBA, the number of rounds in 2005 were reduced from nine to seven; a standard that exists to this day. The 230 players selected in 2005 also included 18 compensatory picks, and both totals represent the most in a draft year since the 2005-06 CBA was signed. It was also one of the last drafts to have all seven rounds in one day. The league tried it again in 2007 before switching to the current format of Round 1 on Friday and Rounds 2-7 the day after.

As for the Penguins, the pre-draft boasts from prognosticators that lionized Crosby as the savior of a desperate franchise were validated almost immediately. And although Crosby’s impressive 102-point rookie season wasn’t enough to prevent another losing campaign in Pittsburgh in 2006, the buzz he generated was felt throughout the league and in North America as a whole.

By 2007, Crosby was a scoring champion and league MVP while leading the Penguins to the playoffs. The following season, the Penguins were in the Stanley Cup Final, and in August of 2008, they broke ground for a new arena. Since entering the league, Crosby has captained the Penguins to three Stanley Cup championships and 13 consecutive playoff appearances while winning two Hart Trophies; two Ross Trophies; and consecutive Conn Smythe Trophies in 2016 and 2017.